Against hopeless sorrow: a review of The Flooded Earth

NB: Also published in slightly altered form on Climate & Capitalism

Paleontologist Peter D. Ward’s The Flooded Earth (Basic Books, 2010) is similar in many ways to a number of other books published in recent years that have examined aspects of scientific findings regarding potential future anthropogenic climate change or the environmental crisis generally conceived: it reviews a number of important data and considerations regarding the the terminal implications climate change could have for the Earth’s polar ice caps but includes highly reactionary socio-political reflections on this most troubling of issues. If the dissident German psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is correct to note that the “consequences” of “serious scientific insight” can be “very often revolutionary”1—if it is the case that the responsibility which accompanies knowledge of impending climate catastrophe “weighs,” in Marx’s words, “like a nightmare on the brains of the living”2—it is toward Ward’s exegesis of climatology rather than his political analysis that attention should be focused.

Ward opens The Flooded Earth by noting that the highest estimated sea-level rise expected to take place this century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Annual Report (4AR)—less than 1 meter—is based on rather conservative predictions regarding the possible future rise in the rate of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases during the course of the twenty-first century—an eventuality that could come to pass, that is, if no “global self-conscious subject develops and intervenes.”3 In the first place Ward revises the IPCC’s estimate to 2100 by bringing to light the likely 1-3m global rise in sea levels that would accompany a 1m rise in sea levels by means of devastating storm surges that would themselves be driven by warmer oceans and a generally warmer atmosphere. Beyond this, though, Ward criticizes reliance on projections of sea-level rise that stop at 2100, given that sea-levels could well continue to rise beyond that date. In Ward’s mind, it is entirely possible that Earth’s atmospheric carbon concentration could reach 800 or even 1000 parts per million by the end of this century or the next—these being concentrations that would undoubtedly cause the icesheets of both Greenland and Antarctica to begin terminal melt. Examining the Earth’s geological record, Ward finds it possible that sea levels could well rise some 5m this century toward a total of 80m over centuries if both ice caps disappear entirely.

Clearly, a 4-5m rise in prevailing sea levels in the near term would be entirely disastrous for much of currently existing humanity. Besides directly removing vast swathes of land from agricultural production through inundation—one thinks of the Brahmaputra-Ganges river basin and the Mekong and Nile deltas—such catastrophic sea-level rises would further cripple the human prospect by provoking mass-intrusion of salt-water into aquifers that could otherwise provide for agriculture. Ward grimly adds that the severity of climate change that would provoke mass-inundation the world over would itself be catastrophic in other regards: atmospheric carbon concentrations of 1000 ppm would also have desertified vast swathes of Earth and likely rendered the oceans largely anoxic producers of hydrogen sulfide. Such a degree of climate catastrophe would surely imply unprecedented human suffering, mass-death, and a precipitous decline in global human population; Ward may indeed be being too charitable when he asserts that such changes would amount to a death sentence for “some proportion of humanity.” An imagined future-scenario of which he writes that has India’s military employ nuclear weapons against a multitude of dispossessed Bangladeshis who flood into the country after having torn down the separation barrier between the two countries remains a possibility that should not be discounted, similar in this sense to one presented by Gwynne Dyer in his Climate Wars (2008) which sees India and Pakistan engage in a nuclear exchange over contested water resources.

Whatever the social value of Ward’s review of scientific findings regarding potential future sea-level rise and the climate crisis writ large, it must be said that the consideration of horror which drives The Flooded Earth in no way leads Ward to propose reasonable or worthwhile reflections on the climate predicament: instead, he most certainly perpetuates alienation in the analysis he shares with readers of his work. For example, Ward rather mindlessly postulates there to exist “no conceivable political means” by which the global South can avert producing energy through coal in the near term, and he reproduces the disastrous patterns of Western capitalism into the imagined future by asserting that private-automobile use will necessarily increase astronomicallyamong Southerners in the coming decades. In the work’s final chapter, indeed, Ward mimics James Lovelock in calling for a Platonic technocracy to forcibly impose the “necessary changes” that he claims can be employed toward preventing climate destabilization—none of which, it should be noted, include the abolition of capitalism. Ward’s proposed platform of unreason includes heavy reliance on geo-engineering schemes and rather absurdly finds human population growth to be the single most important factor that will determine the severity of future climate change. It follows, then, that Ward would suggest that perhaps the “only way” of “effectively” averting climate catastrophe would be to “lower human population.”

Ward’s outrageous populationism and his attendant blindness to systemic considerations are one with the racism he exhibits in much of the text. In an imagined future-scenario Ward provides at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Flood of Humans” that proffers the reflections of an aging geologist (Ward himself, most likely) regarding a visit to conduct research in the deserts of Tunisia in 2060 CE, the man is shown as noting that “hunger” is “almost visible” on the faces of impoverished locals, who despite their plight have been spared the “check on overpopulation” he finds HIV/AIDS to have constituted in many other African countries. In light of these reactionary perspectives, it is to be imagined that the Tunisian children Ward describes as pestering and thus interrupting his work—“skinny sacks of bones, with little energy”—are not to be considered within such a racist-Orientalist constellation to be subjects capable of intervening in history and overthrowing tyrants or systems of horror. Fortunately for Tunisians and humanity in general, Ward is mistaken in this sense, as shown for example in the mass-popular mobilizations which succeeded in ousting long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali just weeks ago: instead of provoking catastrophic climate change that would cause sea-levels to rise precipitously as well as destroy much of life itself, humanity can “do something else”4—it can, in the words of Ernst Bloch, “become-other.”5

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1The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 170

3Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 [1962])

4John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010), p. 86

5The Principle of Hope vol. 1(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986 [1959]), p. 232

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